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Dispatch from Iraq: Exercise in futility interrupts much-needed rest

Sgt. Gary Underhill

Al-Nasiriyah, Iraq

30 October 2009

After the nightmare on the bridge, I was ready to sleep the sleep of the dead. We didn’t get into the base until well after sunrise and it was 10 a.m. before we were able to get chow, a hot shower and into our racks.

I didn’t collapse into my sleeping bag as much as I melted into it. Driving that Humvee for almost 10 hours had taken its toll on me, and for the first time ever, I actually felt every one of my 47 years.

I lay there in the dark as unconsciousness overcame me and I finally drifted off to sleep. Like a dream, I soon heard someone in the distance quietly whispering my name. Then I felt someone shaking my shoulder. Then I couldn’t believe it. I opened my eyes only to stare up at the swollen face of Staff Sgt. Sanchez. He was saying something that may as well have been spoken in Swahili, because I only caught about every third or fourth word. What I heard was, “Get up … go to FOB … leave now …”

I looked at my watch. It was 11:30 a.m. I was stunned, and the only response I could muster, making no attempt to conceal my bone-weary disgust was, “F***!”

As if in a trance, I rolled out of my sleeping bag, pulled on my dirty socks, still damp with sweat from the night before, my dusty camouflaged uniform pants and sweat-stained combat shirt. I didn’t bother tucking my shirt in as I put my boots on. I laced them up and left my pants un-bloused, too tired to even try, or care.

Grabbing my weapon, I shuffled outside to our Humvee and began the laborious task of getting it unlocked and set up for whatever mission we had been awakened for. I was soon joined by Pfc. Mario Nikic, our gunner, and Staff Sgt. Sanchez.

Not bothering to hide my weary disdain for our predicament, I asked Sanchez what the hell we were doing. He explained that we and the MRAP crew would have to escort a third-country-national flatbed to a neighboring forward operating base to pick up a load. Why, I asked, had that not been taken care of when we first rolled in, or better yet, before we were supposed to leave later that same night instead of waking up eight soldiers who were supposed to be on their mandatory rest plan?

As Sanchez explained it, some officer who oversees the dispatch of all convoys decided to take his mid-afternoon stroll through the staging lanes. When he saw the transports lined up and ready for the next night’s convoy, he noticed that one of the TCN flatbeds was rolling out without a load. Apparently, the policy is that no trucks can roll south toward Kuwait without a load, so he ordered that we be woken up to escort the truck the several miles to the next FOB to get a load … any load.

The trip would take several hours, seriously cutting into our mandatory sleep time, and risking soldier safety should we roll out that night without sleep. This officer, however, couldn’t have cared less. Policy is policy, and besides, we could sleep when we were dead.

We left the FOB shortly after noon and arrived at the neighboring FOB 45 minutes later. It took another few hours to find our civilian escort to the container yard, which, as luck would have it, was located in the farthest corner of the post, on the opposite side of the airfield.

The container yard was massive beyond description. As far as one could see in nearly any direction, giant metal seaborne cargo containers were lined side by side. As two of these giant containers were being loaded onto the empty truck, I remarked to Sgt. Rosales that the containers looked awfully light. I half-joked that I’d bet him a paycheck that they were empty.

As it turns out, I was probably right. A young sergeant, looking more like a nerdy accountant than a soldier, came scampering across the container yard toward us as quickly as his little legs could carry him. He was carrying a clipboard, which he lifted up and squinted to read through too-thick glasses.

I asked the container yard sergeant, “Hey, just out of curiosity, what’s in those two containers?” He flipped the pages of his clipboard back and forth and pointed back towards the flatbed they were being loaded onto, replying, “Well, if they’re from that yard right there, they’re empty.”

The sergeant then turned and, without another word, tucked his clipboard under his arm and scampered back toward the container yard. I was stunned. This was just too ridiculous for words. I looked at Rosales and said, “Let me get this straight. We can’t roll out with an empty truck, so were going to load two EMPTY containers onto it to give the impression that it’s loaded? What the f***?”

At this point, we were all too tired to care, or get upset. We just collectively chalked it up to the abject lunacy and ridiculousness that seems so pervasive among those who never leave the wire.

It was 5 p.m. by the time we rolled back to our FOB and got back to our racks. I didn’t even bother to shower, I peeled off my sweaty, dusty uniform, dropped it in a ball at the foot of my mattress, and collapsed. As I lay waiting for sleep to rescue me, I realized one thing – the air conditioner had seized up. Perfect!